Payne review: Mazda3 Turbo is a performance hatchback in stealth mode

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Some auto trims seem inevitable. Ford Mustang and Mustang GT500. Dodge Challenger and Challenger Hellcat. Chevy Corvette and Corvette ZR1. Mazda3 and Mazda3 hot hatch. Yet we have been denied the latter since 2013.

Rejoice, motorheads, the 3 hot hatch is back. Albeit in stealth mode.

Badged the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo, this glorious athlete is the answer to many a motorhead’s (this one included) prayers. I spent three days with 3 Turbo over three states, 800 miles and a small West Virginia test track, and it was worth the wait. Pound for dollar, this all-wheel drive hellion is one the best cars in the auto kingdom.

It is based on the most-handsome compact hatchback made — the Mazda3 — which dropped jaws at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. The well-dressed 3 cried out for a performance model. Two years later, here it is — but you’ll have to look hard for it.

The sculpted flanks of the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo hatchback are worth a long look.

Unlike its peers, the Turbo is virtually indistinguishable from the standard 3 — no wings, no flashy badges, no fancy wheels.

The Mazda3 Turbo couldn’t be more timely. As sedans have fallen to SUVs, so too have pocket rockets. The Ford Fiesta ST, Ford Focus ST and Hyundai Elantra GT have all been shelved in recent years. Which is a shame, because performance versions of these small cars offer the perfect combination of affordability, cargo utility and performance. Their close kin, the Honda Civic Si coupe and Subaru WRX STI sedan, are plenty sporty — but lack that unique hatchback ingredient.

The remaining players are an enticing group of misfit Christmas toys — the three-door Hyundai Veloster, the outrageously winged Honda Civic Type R, the pricey Mini Cooper John Cooper S. The exception is the VW Golf GTI.

The Golf GTI not only invented the segment waaay back in 1984, it is the gold standard. And now it has an equal. It’s Federer vs. Nadal. Frazier vs. Ali. Magic vs. Bird.

The interior of the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo hatchback is luxury class despite the car's $34,000 price.

The Turbo vs. GTI has the potential of a great rivalry. They are similarly understated, yet offer meaningful differences.

It’s the Turbo’s ferocious-yet-civilized performance that makes it the GTI’s peer. It achieves this by stuffing its engine bay with the same turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-4 found in the Mazda 6. It’s a gem. Spitting out 250 horsepower (with 93-octane fuel — 228 on regular gas) and 320 pound-feet of torque, the turbo-4 is a match for the VW's 228-horse (on 93 fuel) 285-torque turbo-4. The two even sound the same with low, pitbull growls.

Alas, unlike GTI, you can’t row the Mazda3 with a manual gearbox.

Not that Mazda doesn’t produce superb manuals — see the Miata and the standard Mazda3 — but Mazda has convinced itself that, like the mid-engine Corvette, its customer wants auto-sophistication over manual fun. Whatever. Mazda’s auto-6 is one of the best in the business.

Mash the throttle anywhere and it will downshift seamlessly, quickly. On a closed test track in West Virginia, I wrung the Mazda’s neck in both automatic and manual-paddle shifter modes. So intuitive was the auto tranny that I didn’t have a preference.

Flattening the rear seats in the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo hatchback opens more cargo room.

What I noticed above all was the all-wheel drive grip. Flinging the Mazda3 into a chicane, I rotated with ease, all four wheels digging for traction on exit. Some will experience this AWD determination if they autocross the 3; all will appreciate it in when the Michigan snows come.

AWD is standard on the Turbo, starting at just $30,845 compared to $33,115 for the manual front-wheel Golf GTI.

It’s an intriguing package. It’s targeted at a broader, more upscale audience (think AWD Audi buyers), yet maintains the extraordinary value of a mainstream compact (think AWD Subaru buyers). The 3 comes with Mazda’s typically best-in-class standard features: heated seats, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, blind-spot assist, automatic headlights, automatic windshield wipers, adaptive cruise-control and a partridge in a pear tree.

The VW won’t bother to include these amenities until you opt for a $37,115 Autobahn trim. Oof. Just to rub it in, my $34,820 Turbo tester included a Premium Plus package with red leather sets, sunroof and autonomous feature called Traffic Jam Assist.

OK, I hear howls from the old MazdaSpeed faithful.

The ol’ 2013 Mazda3 hot hatch was a hellion on a stick-shift leash. It looked the part with its hood scoop and jack o’ lantern face. Mazda fans expecting a return to raw MazdaSpeed form will be disappointed. That’s intentional.

“We didn’t build this car because we’re trying to relive the days of our MazdaSpeed youth,” said powertrain chief Jay Chen. “We saw this as an opportunity to grow brand to satisfy more-mature drivers.”

Um, I think that means me. I cut my teeth on a rowdy 1984 GTI as a 20-something, but now pine for more sophistication in middle age. The Turbo does that inside and out. It’s consistent with Mazda’s premium strategy (shared by VW, by the way) that makes the Turbo as much a competitor with the Audi S3 and BMW 2-series as with mainstream peers.

After my two-day, 800-mile round trip to West Virginia, I was fresh as a daisy. As was Mrs. Payne. The Turbo’s interior is as refined as any luxury compact. The seats fit like a glove, without the harsh bolstering of some boy-toy models that can make your kidneys scream for mercy. Mazda’s adaptive cruise-control system is top shelf, too.

The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo hatchback at a train bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

Like the standard $22,000 Mazda3 hatch, the Turbo fusses over the details like thoughtful storage space, rotary-dial operated screen and clever climate controls.

It shares the same shortcomings, too — its fastback style has less cargo space and passenger headroom than the shoebox-shaped Golf GTI, not to mention blind spots the size of Rhode Island.

With all its added performance moxy — AWD, stump-pulling torque — I would like more visual differentiation beyond the subtle front air-dam and rear spoiler. How about some big front gills like a BMW M2? Heck, even conservative GTI sports signature turbine wheels and red grille lipstick.

My stealthy tester was virtually indistinguishable from the similarly spec’d. standard $30,390 186-horse Mazda3 I tested 18 months ago. But it’s hard to be mad when you add up your savings. Consistent with the brand’s CX30 and CX-5 SUVs, the Mazda3 Turbo is the best value in segment.

Welcome back, Mazda hot hatch. We missed you.

Around a test track in West Virginia, the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo hatchback proved nimble, powerful, with wonderful traction from its AWD system.

2021 Mazda3 Turbo

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, four-door, five-passenger hatchback

Price: $30,845, including $945 destination charge ($34,820 with Premium Plus package as tested)

Powerplant: Turbocharged, 2.5-liter, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 250 horsepower, 320 pound-feet of torque (with 93-octane fuel)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 134 mph

Weight: 3,379 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/32 highway/27 combined 

Report card

Highs: Premium looks; turbo power for the 3, at last

Lows: Tight back seat; more visual flair, please

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.